donderdag 2 augustus 2012

Crossing the Line (Some Thoughts The Morning After)

I finished playing Spec Ops: the Line last night. Unfortunately, I did not go in entirely unspoiled - something which no doubt jaded my experience of some of the game's more shocking moments. So: In the off chance that you're reading this without having played the game: this one's going to be a spoilery one. Reading it might diminish the emotional impact of the moment I'm about to discuss.

Now that that's out of the way...

The turning point of Spec Ops: the Line happens when the main character, Captain Walker, commits an atrocity from which there isn't any coming back. It's the moment that sets it apart from other shooters of its kind, making you think about what you've been doing and what you've just done and what it actually means.

The problem is that it's marred by an absence of choice - a deliberate decision on the parts of the developers. Walker rains down white phosphorus on a large army encampment and winds up killing civilians in the process. In the larger context of the gameplay, this is unavoidable. You cannot progress past this stage in the game without picking up the mortar and turning the area into a reflection of hell. This was done, according to the devs, so that players would blame them for their own decisions, much the same way as Walker increasingly blames the circumstances and the enemy for his own terrible actions.

The point is valid. Narratively speaking, it also makes sense: the game is about Walker's descent into madness, his furious attempts to externalize the blame for the horrors he perpetuates, and the way his desire for heroism turns him into a villain. But something about it niggles.

There is an option available-- you could put down the controller and refuse to play. But this is not really an option within the narrative itself, because putting down the controller means stepping outside of the story, sticking your fingers in your ears and going na-na-na-na. You're not confronting the fact that your own desire to escape and be the hero is causing untold damage in this game - you're actively running away from it. (Of course, from a critical standpoint, you could say that putting down the controller is part of your personal experience/narrative sense of the game. However, I have a feeling the average player would simply go on to pick up another game that does graciously allow you to revel in personal heroics, which kind of breaks the narrative a bit.)

Perhaps the game would have been stronger (though possibly not attainable in a resources sense) if it had offered a parallel, albeit perhaps shorter, narrative. An alternative choice that is not simply a way of getting around using white phosphorus while still killing everyone and continuing on your merry way, sense of heroism untouched: the choice to walk away in-game. What if you, as a player, had the option of sending Walker walking straight on back, giving up on the dream of being a hero, try to simply get out of the city? It wouldn't have to be long: maybe just a level of trying to get back to the storm walls. Just enough to keep you from feeling like you've been stolen out of the narrative itself.

It might not be as dramatic. It doesn't touch on the question of how close we are to our game avatar - a theme that the developers also chose to include - and maybe in that respect, it's not quite right for this game. But it would have been a more interactive solution, something that takes more advantage of the fact that this is a game, it is not the book Heart of Darkness or the movie Apocalypse Now!, it is its own creature. Not only that, but it would burden the player with a much stronger sense of responsibility: knowing that there was another way to see the game to an end, and yet they picked the one that caused so much pain, just because they wanted to be a hero.

Just like Captain Walker.

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